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There's Something about Birds

January 22, 2018


  Passing Song

(collection of Lauren Linowitz)


"Everyone likes birds. What wild creature is more accessible to our eyes and ears, as close to us and everyone in the world, as universal as a bird?"~ David Attenborough


     Is there anyone who doesn't adore birds? Despite the regal beauty of the peacock, maybe the mating season squawk of the King of the Birds (thank you, Flannery O'Connor) in the backyard would not be so welcome on a regular basis. Having said that, I used to live in a place where my neighbor's peacocks would occasionally wander onto my property and—squawks and all—I never tired of the surreal vision of looking out my window and seeing them walking about. Even though some birds have calls that may not be so attractive, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who would denounce a creature so elegant, expressive, and profound. 

       Sooner or later, it seems, any artist who uses imagery will want to paint birds. And why not of course? Birds are fascinating and changeable and exotic in more than a few hundred ways. Perhaps DaVinci planted the seed, translating into exquisite drawings, his fascination with the flight of birds along with his need to dissect their inner workings.

     I absolutely intersect with DaVinci on the love of bird anatomy. But the forms fascinate me more than the science. They are so delicate and thin-boned and remind me so much of the fragility of everything. As if they are the gauzy curtain between worlds. And yet, what powerful creatures they are, seducing us with their ability to soar. 


     There is a persistent romance about birds that speaks to desire and longing. Seeing their migratory lines in the sky always causes me to remember my seeker-self. I instinctively whisper Have a great trip! or Take me with you! as they pass overhead.


     While flight is a bird's cherry-top of distinction, their lovely parts are also extremely worthy, both as beautiful objects and iconography. Reams of romantic poetry and delicate pen and ink renderings have included the graceful and noble feather.  And wings! Endlessly used as metaphor, symbol and seal, an image of a wing moves something in us and reminds us we are more than we think we are and to strive for the deepest connection we can with the world.


Detail from The Edge of Knowing

(Collection of Marta Sanchez Philippe)

     Most of us count endless birdsong as the backdrop of our morning, if we pay attention to these things. Do we understand and appreciate the mystery and reliability and sheer beauty of being sung to every morning? How wonderful is that? 


     Thanks to YouTube, we can easily watch the colorful and sometimes bizarre movements and mating habits of different species. Bower birds (my personal favorite) for example, are nature's decorators. They are well-known for a practice that we, as humans perceive as romantic: that of creating the most inviting nest for a mate using flowers, bits of glass or fruits often with an intentional color scheme. They remind me of the noble act of a singular chore.     





From Equation series. #5/8

(Collection of Ben Pasternak)


     Helping to secure their iconic status, birds have an important role in the mythology of many cultures. Seen as everything from messengers or harbingers of life and death to deities with a power accessed by shamans, they are featured in many traditional stories. The garuda, is a half bird, half human creature in Buddhist doctrine that symbolizes fearlessness in the face of evil. The Mayans believed that a hummingbird hovering around your head would carry your wishes and thoughts to your beloved. The Greeks believed in the power of the phoenix to rise from its fiery nest to live again. These stories still resonate in modern times and clearly elevate birds to a place of honor and respect.

      When I was in my twenties, I kept birds as pets—several pairs of finches and even mourning doves. As much as I loved their presence in my living space, I can't imagine keeping a caged thing in my life now. A caged bird, aside from all of its symbolic angst, simply seems wrong. As if the very spirit of this creature is being negated. Why is it that as humans, we feel the need to tame wild things? Instead, feeding the hummingbirds outside my window reminds me of my own fluttering wildness and not to fear my own flight. 


     A loose series I have been working on involves birds or bird heads used as totems. The idea of taking a live thing and giving it magical or ritual characteristics appeals to me.  All great cultures did this. I think I strive for this kind of connection and purpose as well in my paintings. To retain a modern connection to nature in an increasingly techno world filtered through my particular sense of things. Birds have always filled that role for me. In the studio and in my writing, they continue to fascinate me with their endless variety, and grace. 


Below is one of my poems, entitled Flight published in Life In 10 Minutes .

Detail from Memory and Mind 

(Collection of Donna Quathamer)



 Detail from Totem #3





I sent you a message

tucked into the

wing of a bird.

Maybe it will take years to reach you,

do we have that many moons?


“There is so much time, so much space”

you used to say.

I believed you then.

Rilke said “Every angel is terrifying”

I believe him also.


There is beauty in terror

like a raging red fire

across a mountain,

or the one in your body

that signals desire

for someone you know

will leave your heart

in a heap,

like the flickering light

I keep lit

around your head

waiting for that bird

to reach you.


All paintings and text copyright Linda Laino


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